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Whatever caused Grenfell, trust needs to be rebuilt

19 June 2017 | By Denise Chevin

Image: Metropolitan Police

The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in London has put construction and its buildings and processes under the spotlight as never before. Rebuilding trust starts now, says editor Denise Chevin.

In the early hours of 14 June the most tragic incident was unfolding in west London. Fire had engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in Kensington, leaving an enormous loss of life, many injured and a nation asking why, in 2017, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, 600 people were living in a death trap. How could this possibly happen?

All aspects of the management of the building and the way its 2016 refurbishment was undertaken have come under intense scrutiny in the search for answers as to why the fire could take hold so rapidly, leaving so many people trapped to perish in their homes.

Are we trying to upgrade social housing on the cheap? Did the building contravene fire regulations in some way, either as the work was carried out or through something that may have happened subsequently? What was the role of Building Control? Are the Building Regulations themselves out of date and inadequate or too flexible?

Not least under the spotlight is whether the rainscreen cladding – reportedly a polyethylene-filled aluminium sandwich panels – should be deemed acceptable under the regulations for high-rise buildings of this type when it’s not in other parts of the world.

What we do know more generally is that fire regulations covering high-rise building and refurbishment are fiendishly complicated, particularly where rainscreen cladding is concerned, and are open to interpretation, or misinterpretation.

And we know too that the most well-engineered plan on paper can become useless if holes of just a few millimetres wide are drilled in the wrong place, thus rendering fire stops useless – though again it has to be emphasised there is no evidence that this has happened at Grenfell.

An article we ran recently gives an indication of these types of workmanship problems. Fire inspectors from BRE Global said that spread of fire in 30% of cases they had investigated was due to poor-quality workmanship – though they weren’t talking specifically about high-rise refurbs.

There has also been a recent spate of cases where fire stops have been discovered to have been breached in hospitals and schools, thankfully before any fire.

It would seem too that, generally, social landlords need to up their game on fire risk management – reports about the sector have described fire doors missing and inspections failing to take place.

And then there’s the issue of sprinklers. Only 1% of tower blocks in social housing have them. That’s despite a recommendation for their use from the coroner in the Lakanal House enquiry after a fire in the Southwark tower block in 2009 killed six people. But this is not an exact science and at this stage, so soon after the event, experts have mixed views whether even sprinklers could have prevented the rapid spread and loss of life.

It certainly doesn’t look good for the government that a promised review of fire regulations in the wake of the Lakanal House fire hasn’t materialised, whatever turns out to be the reason.

We will have to wait for some time before the answers to all of these questions are bottomed out. The prime minister has quite rightly promised that there will be a full public inquiry with interim findings to shed light on what happened as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, fire minister Nick Hurd has ordered urgent inspections on tower blocks round the country. Any doubts that are unearthed must lead to residents being speedily rehoused. It would also be reassuring to know that no further work like this is carried out until we know exactly what happened and why.

Whatever the answers – and it wouldn’t be unexpected if there were many contributing factors – this is the Ronan Point of our generation, and a seminal moment in construction.

We must do what it takes: changes to legislation, changes to procurement, shake-up of management, greater accountability and prosecutions, more inspections, more money. Trust has to be rebuilt and lessons learnt. And like the process following the King’s Cross fire in 1987, acted on swiftly and to the letter.

Comments

These residents/relatives of residents etc. of this block and similar blocks deserve an inquest to provide satisfactory answers/recommendations and in an acceptable timeframe

John Clinch Mciat Aciob

John Clinch, 19 June 2017

I think that talking about "poor-quality workmanship" , "Management" and “institutions being whiter than white” is a waste of time. That is "management" language... a Tory management language, created to deviate the attention of the real problem in general (the cheap, the just enough or simply the neglect of poor people) and the particulars of the case of Grenfell Tower, the total ignorance of the inhabitants of the tower and their concerns in terms of safety. The notion of “Real Estate” implies a world of money, value for money, fast profits, but not people and its needs.

Very early on has been firstly, established that the new cladding of the building was produce as a "beautification of the area". That is, for rich people moving there could "accept " that poor people were also living among their midst and therefore make them as invisible as possible. Secondly, a second rate, flammable material was wrapped around the building, making emergency fire measures inefficient. As fire took hold of the building the normal "stay in place" norms were pointless, fire entered each apartment from the "wrong way" through the windows, therefore making fire doors redundant. We do not know all the details, but other repairs made the building even more vulnerable to accidents as the users have been for long time agitating.

The Borough Authorities
The material proposed are:
'Material Palette - 25 September 2014', 1279
PL 315 01, 1279 PL 314 01, 1279 PL 312 01,
1279 PL 313 01 and three unnumbered section drawings of fixings.
Main building panels: Reyondbond/Reynolux, in Smoke Silver Metallic (colour No. E9107S)
attached with a concealed fixings, Between floor panels: Pure White panels (RAL
9010) Detail panels at ground/first floor: PPC Aluminium in Pearl Light Grey (RAL 9022) and
May Green Matt (RAL 6018) Window frames: PPC Aluminium in Basalt
Grey (RAL 7012)

Carlos Patricio Gonzalez, 19 June 2017

The Construction Industry has been calling for more trust for years. Remember the Latham Report? The root problem is that most in the construction industry are transactional thinkers. When selecting the cladding system for Grenfell Tower it would not surprise me if no one even considered the fire risks. The dominant mindset is “narrowly” in the here and now and monthly financial targets.
The alternative is to become relational thinkers where it is not just about delivering a building but looking after the occupants in the long term. This sounds flowery to most in the construction industry but is actually at the core of a digital revolution happening in other industries such as the automotive. For me, it's not so much about trust which is determined by others, it is about a new and bigger paradigm at work in the board rooms of the Construction Industry. It’s about every leader sitting down and questioning if their firm could make the same mistakes as led to Grenfell and if so, deciding to do something that reduces such strategic risks.

Roy Woodhead, 19 June 2017

I have yet to see it asked, but without seeming naive, how is it the inside of the apartments has been so thoroughly destroyed by a fire coming in via the windows?

The fire itself also started it seems in the interior of an apartment, so I'm curious as to how it developed so fast inside an apartment, that it spread to the facade within minutes of the fire starting.

This deserves as much attention as the question of the cladding, as it is more likely to occur, and won't be solved by simply not having a cladding system like the one involved in this fire.

Charles, 19 June 2017

"We need to learn the lessons" where have I heard that before? That statement is like a mantra that nobody listens to

Sheila, 21 June 2017

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